A Google Like Device for Physical Objects

In late April, I had a fascinating video call with a gentleman named Dror Sharon, the CEO of Physical Objects. He showed me a product that just went up on Kickstarter about a month ago. The device is a hand scanner that can scan physical objects and tell you about the chemical make up of that object.

“Smartphones give us instant answers to questions like where to have dinner, what movie to see, and how to get from point A to point B, but when it comes to learning about what we interact with on a daily basis, we’re left in the dark,” Mr. Dror told me via a Skype video call. “We designed SCiO to empower explorers everywhere with new knowledge and to encourage them to join our mission of mapping the physical world.”

Physical Objects’ Kickstarter campaign so far has received over $2 million for SCiO (which is Latin for “to know”). At first, SCiO will come with apps for analyzing food, medication, and plants. You can use it to refine the ingredients of your homebrewed beer or figure out if an internet site’s cheap Viagra is fake. Later, the company will add the ability to check samples from cosmetics, clothes, flora, soil, jewels, precious stones, leather, rubber, oils, plastics, and even human tissue or bodily fluids.

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Above: Consumer Physics prototypes

Mr Sharon told me the “spectrometer figures out what the object is based on an infrared light that reflects back to the scanner. Most objects have different absorption rates, as they vibrate at different levels on the molecular scale. The app takes the data and compares it to a cloud-based database of objects in a data center. When it gets a match, it sends the results to the user’s smartphone.”

According to Mr. Sharon, “the food app tells you calories, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, based on your own estimate of the weight of the food you’re about to eat. (With many food packages, you can get the weight from the label). The app could tell dieters exactly how many calories they’re about to consume, while fitness apps can tell them how many calories they’re burning. That helps people figure out exactly how much exercise they need to do in order to burn off the food they’re eating.”

As I understand it, the food app can also gauge produce quality, ripeness, and spoilage for foods like cheese, fruits, vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, cooking oils, and more. It also analyzes moisture levels in plants and tells users when to water them. Mr. Sharon suggested one could even analyze your blood alcohol level one day, but SCiO is not currently approved as a medical device.

What I find most interesting is, as users conduct more tests, the app gets better and better at correctly identifying objects. The more people use it, the richer the database of information will be to add to the precision levels of the SCiO over time and, more importantly, expand what it can understand. In the demo I saw on an Android smartphone, a ring fills up with circles on your smartphone screen to deliver the proper info. It takes only a matter of seconds to recognize something. SCiO has to be about 20 millimeters from an object before it can be used for scanning. The scanner uses Bluetooth low energy to connect with a smartphone, which needs either iOS 5 or Android 4.3 or higher.

He also showed me its ability to scan what looked like a unmarked white pill and correctly identify the chemical make of the pill. He told me it as an Aspirin and even showed it was made by Bayer. In another demo, he aimed the scanner at a plant and it identified what the plant was. These are the first category of physical products they will target but eventually it could identify the chemical makeup of just about any object. That is why he likened it to being “Google for physical objects.”

If you are a fan of police procedurals like CSI or NCIS you already know about things like mass spectrometers — professional machines that analyze the chemical makeup of objects. These machines can be very large and while there are some handheld versions available today, all are very expensive. SCiO does similar tasks in a device that can fit into your pocket. And when it ships is will cost considerably less, about $149. Now, I am not suggesting SCiO is as powerful as professional mass spectrometers. However, from what I saw in the demo, it can do much of the same kinds of chemical analysis and do it pretty quickly with the readout showing up on your smartphone.

While I find the idea of a pocket spectrometer interesting, where this could have real impact is if it could be built into a smartphone. According to Mr. Sharon, this ultimately is where he sees his technology going. His initial focus is on food, medication and plants although over time it can be expanded to cover just about any physical object. Imagine being able to point the scanner in a smartphone at an apple and know exactly how many calories is in it based on its weight. Or if you had a stray pill lying around and wanted to know what it is before you dare ingest it.

I see this particular device as a game changer of sorts. Today all of our searches are being done via text, numbers and through structural databases of some type. But with a consumer-based spectrometer in a pocket device and then eventually in smartphones, gaining a better understanding of the make up of the physical objects we come in contact with each day would expand a person’s knowledge base. I could imagine it as being part of a teaching tool and get perhaps more kids interested in science. Or used in a science related game so it becomes an important tool to solve a puzzle. At the other extreme, its impact on health-based problems and solutions could be enormous.

This is a technology to watch. As it gets smarter as more people use it and it gets into smartphones, it would add quite a new dimension to our understanding of our world and become an important way for folks to connect to our physical space in ways we just can’t do today.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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